Pierce: Fans in the stands are just expendable TV props

Published October 15, 2013 1:25 pm
Sports on TV • Ratings have replaced ticket buyers as college football's top priority.
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A couple of weeks ago, BYU and Utah State had an absolutely great TV time slot. They played at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT on a Friday night — prime time in those time zones, where three-quarters of Americans live.

If you're looking for TV exposure, the timing was perfect.

But that meant kickoff was just after 6 p.m. in Logan — pretty horrific for a lot of people who actually attended the game. Fans who drove north had to take time off from work. Heck, some fans had to leave work early just to get home in time to see the game on the CBS Sports Network.

Not that anybody at CBSSN cares how much the kickoff time impacts ticket-buyers. Nor should they. They're in the TV business, and it doesn't matter to them.

This season, BYU also has two Friday-at-6 p.m. home games. USU and Utah opened the season at 6 p.m. on a Thursday. Utah had an 8 p.m. Thursday game. And it's become common for both Utah and BYU to kick off on Saturday nights at 8 p.m. or later.

Not exactly fan friendly.

As TV coverage has expanded, the folks who actually buy tickets have become nothing more than expendable TV props. If a stadium is half-empty, so what?

That's not opinion, it's fact. Last season, ESPN's bowl ratings soared. Its five BCS games were up 7 percent; the 28 non-BCS games were up 5 percent.

Attendance, however, was down to its lowest average in 34 years. When you add the two bowl games ESPN didn't telecast, there were more than half a million empty seats — almost a quarter of the total.

(FYI, Aggie and Cougar fans, there were 35,442 fans at the BYU-San Diego State Poinsettia Bowl, 6,199 more than attended the USU-Akron Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. But the stadium in Boise was filled to 79 percent capacity and the stadium in San Diego was at just under 50 percent.)

Not that ESPN cared. And that's not criticism, it's just a fact that college football games are more about fans on their couches than the fans in the bleachers.

And it isn't just college football. NFL ratings and revenues have soared, turning the league into an incredible, money-making machine.

But after peaking in 2007, NFL attendance has declined steadily. Ticket sales across the league were down 4.5 percent in the past five years.

That's not much cause for concern when you're averaging more than $3 billion per year in TV revenue.

College football is about the haves and the have-nots, but total TV revenues is also counted in the billions. According to Forbes, 80 percent of the revenue for the Big Five conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) comes from TV. ESPN alone has paid out $10 billion for college football rights five years.

So it's hard to blame conferences (or independents like BYU) for catering to TV at the expense of fans in the stands.

This is the golden age of watching college football on TV. You can be a big fan and never step inside a stadium.

But if you have, you've sat through the iterminable TV timeouts while ESPN or CBS or the Pac 12 Network are airing commercials. You might not notice at home — you can flip channels, get a snack or take a bathroom break.

But the long breaks shatter the flow of the game for fans in the stands. It could be one more reason some decide to stay home and watch in their living rooms instead of making the trek to the stadium.

Not that it matters to a TV-driven sport.

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.



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